During Ron Hutchinson’s contribution to this ten-play marathon, Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin meet just after the US nuclear attacks on Japan at the end of the Second World War to discuss whether Britain should pursue a nuclear deterrent. In a foreshadow of Thatcher’s ungrammatical soundbite that we “can’t uninvent the nuclear bomb”, they argue that all that has gone before is irrelevant; that the nuclear age is upon us and that it will dictate policy and politics for ever more.
Shereen Martin and Michael Cochrane in The Bomb - A Partial History at the Tricycle Theatre, London (Previous picture shows David Yip, Tariq Jordan, Nathalie Armin, Rick Warden and Simon Chandler) Photo: John Haynes
David Greig’s The Letter of Last Resort, the final play in this event, is something like that - a nuclear blast. So beautifully constructed is it, so perfect in its arguments and in its presentation of those arguments that, really, all the series’ plays preceding it are rendered irrelevant due to their relative inability to cut to the chase as affectively as Greig.
The Bomb - A Partial History in Two Parts can only be reviewed as an event. And what an event. Only the Tricycle - the last bastion of powerful political theatre in the UK - could present a five-hour marathon on the development and deployment of the nuclear bomb. And only the Tricycle could make those five hours fly.
Not that all the contributions work. Those that tend to be more exposition, such as Hutchinson’s Calculated Risk, tend to slow proceedings down, educating rather than entertaining (in its broadest sense).
And Diana Son’s Axis, which starts brightly as Washington wonks work out the best soundbites to justify the war on terror, descends into irrelevance as two North Korean high commanders discuss a Pentagon offer to buy the nation’s nuclear programme.
Others, which approach the topic out of left field, fare better. Lee Blessing’s allegorical Seven Joys, which depicts the club of nuclear powers as, well, a club, and Colin Teevan’s There Was a Man. There Was No Man, which exposes the myth of the black and white nature of Middle Eastern politics, are highlights. As is Greig’s contribution.
Casting is excellent. Paul Bhattacharjee and Simon Chandler’s diversity is obvious and the introduction of Belinda Lang for the final two plays has the effect of bringing on the fresh legs of a substitute late in the game.
Director Nicholas Kent has carefully crafted this, understanding not only the pace of a play, but of a series of plays, and the light and dark necessary to power them along. His decision to bookend the series with two shorts by Zinnie Harris really seals the deal.
Presented on a simple set, designed by Polly Sullivan and dressed through Douglas O’Connell’s video designs, The Bomb is an exercise in creating simple, entertaining and crucial polemical theatre.